Halsey possessed the most powerful naval force the Americans had yet sent to the Pacific. And, he would not hesitate to commit every ship to counter any offensives the Japanese might attempt. However, he had a more immediate mission for his ships – resupplying the American troops. They needed new supplies for their ground assault against the Japanese. Anchoring his upgraded naval fleet were the two repaired fleet carriers Enterprise and Saratoga with three new fast battleships, the North Carolina, Indiana, and Washington, two escort carriers, the Chenango and Suwannee, 13 cruisers, and 45 destroyers. Halsey hoped Yamamoto would launch another challenge that would allow the aggressive American admiral to deliver the crushing blow he had missed when he had been forced to be hospitalized during Midway.
But the Japanese High Command had cut Yamamoto’s supplies such that he would never again try to meet Halsey’s fleet in a direct confrontation. Instead, he would deal a huge psychological blow to the Americans far beyond its actual impact at the Battle of Rennell Island.
The supply task force comprising of four fully loaded transports – the Crescent City, President Hayes, President Adams, and President Jackson – sailed from Nouméa on January 27. Meanwhile, the rest of Halsey’s ships had to leave from several ports at different times in six separate groups. The first four were Rear Admiral Warden L. Ainsworth’s four light cruisers and four destroyers, Rear Admiral Lee’s force of the two battleships North Carolina and Indiana, which had replaced the damaged South Dakota, the Saratoga’s carrier group led by Rear Admiral DeWitt Ramsey, and Rear Admiral Frederick C. Sherman’s Enterprise carrier group.
They sailed 250 to 400 miles behind the four-transport group and Rear Admiral Robert C. Giffen’s Task Force 18 consisting of the three heavy cruisers Wichita, Chicago, and Louisville, the light cruisers Montpelier, Cleveland, and Columbia, the escort carriers Chenango and Suwannee, and the eight destroyers La Vallette, Waller, Conway, Frazier, Chevalier, Edwards, Meade, and Taylor.
Nighttime Torpedo Attack
Given the nickname of “Ike” from his days at the Naval Academy from 1903 to 1907, Giffen, who happened to be a favorite of Admiral King’s, was born in Chester, Pennsylvania on June 29, 1886. A strong-willed and colorful officer, he had just brought the heavy cruiser Wichita and two escort carriers from Casablanca on the other side of the globe. While serving in the European theater, Giffen had faced danger from submarines but had not had much experience conducting air operations from the escort carriers or defending against Axis air attacks. His task force steamed from Éfaté on the same day the transport group left Nouméa with orders to cross the transports’ course south of Guadalcanal. Since Giffen was new to the Pacific, Halsey wished to give the newly arrived admiral the freedom to conduct his operations using his own judgement. He was to rendezvous with Captain Robert P. Briscoe’s four-destroyer “Cactus Striking Force” – the Nicholas, O’Bannon, Radford, and DeHaven – near Cape Hunter, a point 15 miles off Guadalcanal’s southwest coast. The two groups would then steam up the Slot with the transports going into Iron Bottom Sound through the Lengo Channel and unloaded their cargoes at Lunga Point.
Richard C. Giffen’s inexperience in naval warfare in the Pacific as well as a lack of understanding how to use naval aviation came to the fore when he failed to deploy his two escort carriers ahead of his cruisers. Calling them his “ball and chain” because of their slow 18-knot maximum speed, he kept them with the rest of his formation thus slowing the whole force’s speed. Someone made the relative calculation that showed there was no way that Task Force 18 could ever reach its meeting time with Briscoe’s destroyers at its current 18-knot speed.
On January 29 at 2:00 p.m., Giffen then ordered the two escort carriers with two destroyers providing protection to drop behind and increased his remaining force’s speed to 24 knots. Captain Ben H. Wyatt, the carrier force’s commander, agreed to fly reconnaissance to look for searching Japanese aircraft and support Giffen’s operations. But Giffen worried more about submarines than aircraft – again reflecting his past experience in the ETO. So he ordered Wyatt make antisubmarine patrols more important than looking for Japanese aircraft. Giffen now worried that he could not meet with Briscoe in time so his cruisers could benefit from air support from CACTUS.
The Japanese Attack the Chicago
The radar operators aboard the cruisers began picking up blips coming from unknown aircraft some time that afternoon. Since the IFF aboard American aircraft this early in the war was not very reliable, the men pouring over the radar screens could not decide if the approaching airplanes were friendly or Japanese. Giffen had ordered tight radio silence thus preventing the cruiser Chicago’s fighter-director crew from sending American fighters to intercept the incoming planes and determine if they were Japanese or not.
The Japanese were by no means as much in the dark as were the Americans. They had carefully positioned their submarines and continued radioed reports of the American ship movements. The newly constructed Japanese airfield on Munda received the alert about the American ships. The mechanics checked the engines on 32 twin-engine “Betty” bombers while other men loaded torpedoes and machine gun ammunition aboard the waiting planes. After being fully fueled, two Japanese bomber groups took off and headed southeast toward Task Force 18’s latest reported position.
Sunset arrived in the waters 50 miles north of the Rennell Islands at 6:50 p.m. on January 29. A light easterly wind barely stirred the waters around Task Force 18 as it steamed on a zigzagging 305º course at 24 knots. Giffen was in a hurry to get to his appointed meeting with Briscoe’s destroyers but also did not want to be torpedoed by submarines. The ship formation resembled the shape of a rivet with four destroyers in a semicircle two miles ahead, the cruisers steaming in two columns about 2,500 yards apart, and two destroyers on each column’s flank. The sea was almost glass-like that belied the chaos about to descend upon the American force.
The formation was an ideal one for moving into a battle formation for a sea action or for outrunning submarines. However, it had too many holes to its rear and on its flanks to defend against an air attack. As the sun went down, Giffen began receiving repeated reports of rapidly approaching “bogeys” about 60 miles to the west. Nevertheless, Giffen issued no orders to change his ships’ formation, prepare for an assault from the air, or what to do if the oncoming airplanes should attack. The Chicago and several other ships lowered their alert level from General Quarters. They were like sitting ducks just waiting to be attacked.
As we now know, the approaching planes were indeed Japanese torpedo-bombers. Two Air Groups arrived – the 701st commanded by Lieutenant Commander Joji Higai and the 705th led by Lieutenant Commander Genichi Mihara – both of whom were highly trained, competent, talented, and experienced in the advanced techniques of torpedo attacks at night. Mihara spotted the American ships at 7:19 p.m. and turned his 16 aircraft group to attack them from the darkened eastern sky. They were nearly invisible to any visual detection.
The Wichita’s radar plot lit up with a swirling display of many aircraft heading its way. The destroyer Waller’s automatic antiaircraft guns blasted away at the oncoming planes as the big-bellied “Bettys” zipped past her fantail and flew toward the American cruisers. One bomber burst into flames and smacked into the water. An unexploded torpedo might have hit the Louisville. The first Japanese attack inflicted no damage on Task Force 18.
Giffen seemed oblivious to the air attack since he did not issue a single order to alter his task force’s course or speed. Apparently in a hurry to make his assigned rendezvous, he even made it easier for the planes to hit his ships when he stopped zigzagging at 7:30 p.m. and still maintained his 305º, 24-knot course. It was now even easier for Higai’s 15-plane 705th Air Group to mark their targets by dropping floating red and green flares on each cruiser’s side to mark their course in the darkness. Since there was no moon, the flares as well as the bursts of light from the firing of American 5-inch guns increased the contrast between the dark and light and blinded the gunners.
The group moved in for the kill at 7:38 p.m. Higai’s bomber took several antiaircraft hits, burst into flames, and crashed into the water off the Chicago’s port bow. The big cruiser made a perfect target as she was now fully silhouetted by the burning plane.
One torpedo plowed into the Chicago’s starboard side. Water rushed into two compartments and began to inundate the aftermost fireroom. The cruiser’s damage control officer was on his way to assess the damage when a second torpedo exploded two minutes later inside the Number 3 fireroom. Water flooded the compartment. Three of the four cruiser’s propellor shafts stopped turning. The ship stopped moving forward. She was now in great danger of sinking. But, Captain Ralph O. Davis ordered his well trained and dedicated damage control parties to do all they could to save the ship.
The Louisville followed behind the Chicago and had to turn sharply to avoid colliding with her and two burning planes. Moving past the Chicago at 30 knots, she reduced her speed and lined up behind the flagship Wichita. As another burning “Betty” crashed into the sea, another torpedo hit the Wichita but did not explode.
Giffen learned fast what is was like to be attacked by the effective Japanese aviators. The American radar fire control seemed to be more effective than it was at Savo Island. But, as Giffen expressed it, the radar screens had so many rapidly moving blips on them that it seemed the operators were trying to track a “disturbed hornet’s nest.” He also failed to put into effect another technique of shielding ships from attack – a smokescreen – because there was no doctrine. Thus, he never ordered the protection.
The twilight finally faded into total darkness at 10:00 p.m. when Giffen finally took measures to protect his task force. He ordered a reversal of his course to 120º and reduced his ships’ speed to 15 knots to prevent them from showing phosphorescent wakes that made it easier for the Japanese pilots to find his ships. He also ordered his gunners to fire only at confirmed targets to not give away their ship’s positions. The ships’ radar screens still showed there were Japanese planes out there until 11:35 p.m. Nonetheless, the actions Giffen finally undertook prevented the Japanese pilots from attacking any more. By this time, they had already turned away and headed for their Munda home base.
At the same time, the Chicago’s damage control parties stopped the flooding and kept the list to 11º as the engineers restarted one boiler. Enough power was restored for the pumps to return the damaged cruiser to an even keel. Giffen ordered the Louisville to tow the unmoving Chicago – an intricate and difficult operation in total daylight but even trickier in full darkness. But the Louisville’s crew made it work in a remarkable feat of seamanship; the Chicago was now in her crew’s able care. The rest of Task Force 18 moved off to give its wounded partner as much protection as it could.
The Louisville’s Captain Charles T. Joy moved ahead to about 1,000 yards from the Chicago’s weather bow and ordered a whaleboat be lowered to carry a small-diameter rope to the crippled cruiser. Despite being dark, it was hot enough to make the sailors profusely perspire as they prepared the complex towing gear to be connected to the Louisville. The men aboard the Chicago manhandled the 360-foot-long, thick, steel hawser and shackled it to the ship’s anchor chain. The line slid into the waves. Joy ordered the Louisville forward at a dead slow speed. By midnight, the Chicago began to move behind her rescuer as her crew discovered the rudder was jammed to the left. Her crew worked hard to quickly free it. The two ships proceeded at three knots and headed for Espiritu Santo. Another boiler came online and more pumps began pumping the water inside back into the sea. The rest of Task Force 18 stayed nearby.
The Chicago Sinks
As the sun rose on January 30 over the waters where Task Force 18 plied its way back to Espiritu Santo, the Louisville with the Chicago in tow now limped at their combined best speed of three knots. When Halsey found out what happened to the heavily damaged cruiser, he issued several orders to help Giffen and protect the cruiser from receiving any further damage. While the Chenango and the Suwannee continued their CAP, Admiral Fitch sent a PBY “Black Cat” from Espiritu Santo to fly above Task Force 18 and look for approaching Japanese planes. Rear Admiral Sherman received directions to add more CAP aircraft from dawn to dusk – an order he immediately implemented. The tug Navajo and the destroyer-transport Sands, which were performing other duties, steamed to the aid of the stricken cruiser.
But, like sharks smelling blood in the water, the Japanese were not about let the crippled cruiser and the rest of Giffen’s task force get away without inflicting more damage. Admiral Kusaka, upon learning that Task Force 18 was on its way back to its base, seemed satisfied this force no longer threatened his Operation “KE” but wanted to sink the crippled American ship.
Japanese search plane echoes filled the American radar screens from dawn until 2:00 p.m. Kusaka correctly reasoned that if the ship continued on its present course, it would soon be out of range of Guadalcanal-based fighter cover by that afternoon. Therefore, any planes he sent would be less likely to be intercepted and shot down. He ordered another air attack on the retreating naval force. Nevertheless, he did not know there were American escort carriers nearby that already had a fighter umbrella over the American warships.
One Betty left Munda at 12:05 p.m. to scout ahead for another 11 bombers from the 751st Air Group that took off ten minutes later. Three hours later, a coastwatcher radioed Guadalcanal that Japanese bombers were on their way. CACTUS warned Task Force 18 and the Enterprise. The FDO calculated the Japanese planes would be over Task Force 18 just after 2:00 p.m. More intelligence reports from Pearl Harbor also warned Giffen that there were Japanese planes spying on Task Force 18 with ten Japanese submarines placed to the southeast and south in the task force’s path that could disclose the ships location to the approaching aircraft.
When he received that information, Halsey ordered Giffen to send the undamaged ships to Éfaté and let the Navajo take over the Louisville’s towing duties so that the battle-ready cruiser could escape the impending air attack. Giffen in his flagship Wichita and the rest of Task Force 18 steamed eastward at high speed at 3:00 p.m. and left the Navajo behind towing the Chicago along with a destroyer screen of the La Vallette, Conway, Frazier, Waller, Edwards, and Sands. Now the damaged cruiser’s protection the departing ships provided against the oncoming Japanese bombers was gone. Another valuable asset – the FDO aboard the Wichita – departed and left no viable fighter direction to help guide whatever American CAP there was to intercept the Japanese bombers.
Second Japanese Air Attack Sinks the Chicago
Now just four F4Fs flew as protection over the small group of ships. The remaining American pilots spotted the scouting Japanese bomber at 3:40 p.m. with the eleven bombers of the 751st Air Group right behind it but just out of sight over the horizon. The four F4Fs chased the lone plane for 40 miles, shot down the Japanese scout. Now no American fighters flew cover over the ships when the 11 attacking Bettys sighted the plodding Chicago in tow.
They stayed on their southeasterly course until they could get ahead of the ships. The Americans, tracking the Japanese planes’ progress with their radar, now believed these planes were after the damaged cruiser but intended to attack the Enterprise – just 40 miles south of the Chicago. The carrier’s FDOs directed six F4Fs, commanded by Lieutenant MacGregor Kilpatrick, to intercept the Japanese bombers. When the bomber pilots saw the approaching American fighters, they immediately turned left, plummeted toward the water, and headed for the cruiser. Just Kilpatrick and his wingman were in position to attack the bombers when the attackers were ready to launch their torpedoes.
A chaotic one-minute-long combat occurred that could be described from minute recollections from the American and Japanese pilots who were there. The two American fighters shot down three Japanese bombers in flames. Lieutenant Commander Flatley, leading four fighters, tried to intercept the now-diving bombers but was too late as nine bombers came out of a cloud cover and spread out to deliver a torpedo attack. One bomber, also aflame, turned toward a “Honolulu-class” light cruiser and placed itself between their “battleship” target and the other attackers. The bombers continued their attacking course by drastically turning to avoid being hit by the now heavy antiaircraft fire coming up from the sea. The ships’ guns destroyed two more bombers and two American fighters shot down two more bombers as they came out on the other side of the cruiser.
The bombers approached the Chicago’s port beam at 4:20 p.m. before the ship’s antiaircraft gunners could defend her. They thought they had shot down four bombers; but, as they stopped firing, the wakes of five torpedoes headed for the ship. The Navajo vainly tried to turn the cruiser to comb the torpedoes’ wakes.
One torpedo crashed into her forward starboard side at 4:24 p.m., exploded, and sent massive amounts of debris over the bridge and forecastle. Three more missiles struck her starboard just seconds later right where she had been hit on the previous day. The cruiser’s gallant damage control parties at last lost their battle to save their ship as water now flooded the already watery engineering compartments. Captain Davis ordered his ship’s crew to “Abandon Ship” as the cruiser’s end was near. Davis later recalled his ship “rolled slowly over on her starboard side and settled by the stern, with colors flying” at 4:43 p.m. Six officers and 55 enlisted perished with her while the Navajo, Edwards, Waller, and Sands plucked the 1,069 survivors from the water.
Meanwhile, three Japanese planes found another target to attack. Optimistically classifying the destroyer La Vallette as a “Honolulu-class” cruiser, one of the Bettys kept coming through a hail of antiaircraft fire, took a hit that set its port wing and engine afire. It dropped one torpedo from a range of 300 yards. A torpedo exploded against the La Vallette’s port side near its forward engine room and either killed or wounded 21 of its crew. But the Japanese did not escape unscathed. Nine of their bombers never returned along with the highly respected Lieutenant Commander Higai, who they would sorely miss. With just four bombers remaining in the Air Group and three of them each having just one operating engine, they staggered back to Shortland.
The American Navy Reacts to the Chicago’s Sinking
When Nimitz received the news that the Chicago had been sunk, the normally poised and calm admiral lost his temper. The American attempt to take Guadalcanal had pent up much frustration in him, and all that emotion now exploded. But his pique of temper did not last long when he correctly surmised that nothing could bring the Chicago back. He became determined to keep the loss of the cruiser from the public and the Japanese. He had much with which to be angry about with the mishaps from Washington that had been accumulating since the Guadalcanal invasion began.
The first incident was when King told the press the Wasp had sunk before any of the carrier’s next of kin could be notified. The second mistake was when the President, not wanting to be perceived as keeping critical war information from the public so close to the midterm elections, prematurely announced the loss of the Hornet before the Navy issued an official news release. During his morning conference with his staff after the cruiser’s sinking, Nimitz angrily exclaimed, “I’ve never said this in my life before, but if any man lets out the loss of the Chicago, I’ll shoot him!” Perhaps his malarial illness got the best of him during that time. Later, he entered Aiea Hospital [Hawaii] to deal with the disease.
CINCPAC’s report to King was far calmer than Nimitz must have felt when he wrote it. He stated the Chicago’s loss was “especially regrettable because it might have been prevented.” Among these ways the sinking could have been prevented were Giffen’s uncompromising drive to get to his rendezvous to the exclusion of other factors, mistakes in directing the fighters to intercept the Japanese bombers, and placing the escort carriers too far away to provide an effective CAP. However, one positive outcome of the Battle of Rennell Island was the diversion of Japanese aircraft to attack Task Force 18 instead of attacking the American transports disgorging their cargoes at Lunga.
Nevertheless, the Chicago was the last American ship to be sunk in the struggles to take Guadalcanal. The Battle of Rennell Island was also the last naval engagement the American Navy would fight against the Imperial Japanese Navy in the struggle for Guadalcanal.
Meanwhile, the American ground offensive was in full swing.